The Infamous Unit 731 – Chinese Museum Displays Evidence of Japanese WWII War Crimes

Matsuoka Tomoko - CC-BY SA 3.0
Matsuoka Tomoko - CC-BY SA 3.0

Many have heard about the war atrocities of Joseph Mengele and his treatment of Jewish prisoners during World War II. Less publicized, however, is the human experiments and germ warfare development in Japan’s Unit 731. Led by Surgeon General Shirō Ishii, the unit was responsible for unimaginable war crimes at their base in Harbin in Northeastern China.

Recently, the Museum of Evidence of War Crimes by Japanese Unit 731 produced new artifacts detailing the abusive practices of the Japanese army. Included in the artifacts were written confessions from members of Unit 731, a record detailing the transportation of prisoners, photos of soldiers in the unit, and an incubator used to produce plague bacillus.

The curator of the museum, Jin Chengmin, said that the incubator provided proof of biological weapon development by Unit 731.

The museum also produced a written confession by a former member of Unit 731 which stated that the base can produce 10 kg of germs in 12 to 24 hours. He claimed that the unit had four incubators for this purpose.

Shirō Ishii proposed the creation of the secret facility after he studied abroad for two years. He rationalized that the Japanese needed to keep up with the West, as they were developing their own biological warfare programs. Japanese medical schools encouraged students to work at the facility due to the ability to experiment on live human subjects and to witness the effects of extreme illness and injury which would not be available to them anywhere else. The Japanese government and military invested heavily in the unit known as the “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army” or, informally, “Unit 731.”

Most of the test subjects, referred to as “wooden logs” by the unit’s personnel, were Chinese. Approximately 70% of the unit’s victims were from China and the other 30% were Soviet. The remaining victims were from Korea and Mongolia with a few Allied prisoners of war finding themselves imprisoned and experimented on in Unit 731’s base. The total number of people experimented on by Unit 731 is estimated at 3,000. It is believed that 300,000 people were killed by Japan’s biological weapons.

Experiments conducted at the base included subjecting people to plague bacteria and documenting the effects, leaving people outside in the winter to document the effects of severe frostbite on their limbs, and placing prisoners in pressure chambers to document how much pressure their bodies could stand before they were crushed. There is also photographic and written testimony documenting acts of vivisection on prisoners.

Japan’s television broadcast network, NHK, showed a documentary about the actions of Unit 731 on April 13, 2017. The network discovered a 20-hour audio recording used in a Soviet war crimes trial against members of Unit 731 that were arrested by the Red Army after the war. NHK further reported that members of the unit destroyed equipment and were forbidden from ever talking about their involvement with Unit 731.

It is believed that unit members that were captured by the US army were pardoned, and their testimony and research was kept top-secret to be used by America’s own researchers in the military. Some Japanese citizens and politicians believe that it is time for those who went on to high-level medical careers after their research in China should come forward and tell the truth.

Discussing war crimes committed by the Japanese in World War II is a controversial subject in Japan. The schools do not teach about the less virtuous actions of the Japanese military and government during the war. Many Japanese citizens see their country as the victims of the war and refuse to accept that their military and government instigated such barbarous acts during the war. It is only now, 70 years after the war ended, that many soldiers feel able to discuss what happened back then.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE